White punks on blues

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In a busy Camden diner, a weary Blues Explosion contemplate their greasy eggs and try to think above the swelling lunchtime hubbub. Midway between two of life's more draining experiences - a gig the night before, and a transatlantic flight that afternoon - they seem as exhausted as befits a band involved in two of the year's rawest, most spirited recordings. Their latest album, Now I Got Worry, is the kind of delirious rockabilly- punk-blues avalanche you keep hoping The Cramps can make again. Better still, for the tremendous A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, the three young Explosions, whining theremin in tow, hooked up with grizzled Mississippi bluesman RL Burnside for an alcoholically charged afternoon of boogie blow-outs.

"It was a fun afternoon," says singer / guitarist Jon Spencer of the Burnside session. "It wasn't all easy - it takes some work to keep up with him, but I think that's what's cool about the record. After a while we just let the tapes run, and caught all the joking around."

"RL's got a lot more affinity with us, 'cos we're rockers, than he does with most of the blues players," adds second guitarist Judah Bauer. "He just likes to have a party, man."

There's a benign, bedraggled cool about the Blues Explosion in person which belies their on-stage vitality. At their sell-out Astoria show, the trio forms a tight little triangle in the centre of the stage, a condensed, upstart burst of energy. The two guitarists bounce around with punkish gusto - Spencer, in particular, has a great move where he does the Townshend propeller and the Godfather knee-drop, simultaneously. But even they seem restrained at the side of drummer Russell Simins, whose style combines the enigmatic pulse of John "Drumbo" French, from Beefheart's Magic Band, with the deranged enthusiasm of Animal from The Muppets. Battering away with maximum effort at a minimal kit, he's a blur of hair.

In and around Simins's lock-tight rhythms, the two guitarists' lines intertwine with bristling angularity and no small intimation of violence. Spencer, impressively incoherent, howls and shrieks over the top, completely unintelligible save for the frequently repeated expostulation "Blues Explosion!!!". Dark and driven, the songs are riffs that haven't yet been colonised and cowed by words. Perhaps it's just as well.

Formed four years ago from the ashes of Spencer's previous band, New York avant-rock noise-punks Pussy Galore, the Blues Explosion effectively apply much the same aesthetic principles to a different genre.

"There are some similarities," admits Spencer. "The main thing is: really simple music. But Pussy Galore was more about confrontation - there were more ideas and concepts involved. By contrast, the Blues Explosion met by accident and started playing by accident - we just have fun doing it. We're not hung up on any heavy ideas." And, he might have added, there's a verve and spirit to his current group which contrasts sharply with Pussy Galore's jaded New York nihilism.

There's also a more pronounced sense of history to this current work. The band's bass-less line-up, for instance, looks back, via The Cramps, to The Houserockers, the trio fronted in the Sixties by the Chicago bluesman Hound Dog Taylor (though while his band may have been a bass short, Taylor himself, spookily enough, possessed more than the usual complement of digits). And while the Blues Explosion's last album, Orange, featured a guest rap from Beck, this one employs the more venerable talents of Rufus Thomas, the Memphis DJ and showman whose funky chickens and dog- walkings have enhanced the R&B vocabulary since before Elvis met Sam Phillips. But there's a world of difference, Spencer agrees, between the Blues Explosion's attitude to the blues and the archivistic approach practised by most British blues anoraks, who tend to favour authenticity and technical prowess.

"Nothing against British people," he allows, "there's plenty of people in the States who have taken this real strait-laced approach to it, too. Unfortunately, that's what most people think of as the blues, and it's due to what went on in the late Sixties. The kind of blues we like is looser, blues with a feeling.

"But what we do isn't even the blues. We're not `a blues band'. I'm a white punk, y'know? If we were trying to play the blues it would sound stupid. The only element we really take from the blues is that we play from where we're coming from. It's real, it's not pretence. We don't try and sound like anything."

The Blues Explosions' `Now I Got Worry' is out on Mute Records; RL's Burnside's `A Ass Pocket of Whiskey' is out on Matador Records